The ‘Get Rich’ Personality Switch: How Wealth Can Turn You Into a Jerk

Socialite Paris Hilton, who managed to get rich and attain great wealth with little effort, sits in the front row at a fashion show

Socialite Paris Hilton, who managed to get rich and attain great wealth with little effort, sits in the front row at a fashion show | Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Money changes people. Even talking about money tends to bring out the worst in us. If you’ve had a friend or relative who has been fortunate enough to come into wealth through luck or hard work, it’s not unusual to sense some profounds shifts in their personality. It’s understandable, at some level — whereas they were, at one time, struggling to get by like everyone else, they now have a bit of wiggle room. An enormous amount of stress has been lifted off of them, in many cases.

Those changes can manifest in a number of ways, too. Think about people like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, for example. These are men who have made fortunes unlike anything the world has ever seen, and now spend their time and resources giving back and doing what they can to solve serious problems through different channels. Others, however, seem to sour. An obvious example is Donald Trump, who’s notorious for stiffing his workers, among other things.

This is where we get the idea of the crotchety old rich person — the Scrooges of the world. The Donald Trumps. The Gina Rineharts. The Sheldon Adelsons. Money does indeed change people, and interestingly enough, the most profound changes actually happen at the psychological level. And they happen fast.

The result is that people who have managed to get rich through whatever means tend to embody that classic Scrooge stereotype, and there’s scientific evidence to back it up.

The “get rich” switch

Scrooge McDuck, a well-known stingy jerk

Scrooge McDuck, a well-known stingy jerk | Disney

Psychologists say two things happen when we attain wealth: We become less empathetic, and we tend to act out in more unethical ways. A recent brief from the World Economic Forum, written by two researchers from the University of California, Irvine, dug into each to try and explain why this happens.

It’s complicated, but frames things in a way that most of us probably don’t consider — that wealth comes with costs, and many of those costs concern our social and personal relationships or interactions.

When it comes to “the empathy gap,” the researchers say, studies have shown that the wealthier a person gets, the less empathetic they feel for those around them. “This may reflect basic differences in how much the rich and poor attend to the needs of others around them. Whereas wealthy folk can rely on their money when times get tough, the poor are more dependent on others and invest more in their relationships,” the brief says.

This also manifests in social interactions, where studies have shown that poorer people are actually more friendly and engaged with those around them. Charitable giving, surprisingly enough, is also highest among lower earners.

A man sits in a golden bath tub

A man sits in a golden bath tub | Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

The second big change that wealth brings on is a tendency to act unethically. This shouldn’t surprise us, as at almost any given moment we can find examples from the day’s headlines — from the recent Wells Fargo scandal, to again, Donald Trump doing just about anything Donald Trump does. As proof, the WEF article points to studies that show rich people actually shoplift more than poorer people, and are more likely to cheat on their taxes.

So, not only does money tend to bring out the worst in us, but there’s clearly a lot of data and observational data to back that up. But we still haven’t had a good explanation as to why that happens. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple way to explain it.

As the research team explains, it goes back to those “costs” of wealth that lower earners overlook. People with more money have a vastly different set of obstacles to contend with day-to-day — be it in the form of family members or friends who are always wanting for something, a consistent stream of pitches and appeals for investments, or simply trying to deal with increasingly angry fellow citizens who are becoming more aware of the drastic economic inequality present in our society.

They have a lot to lose, and it can feel like everyone’s out to take them down. That feeling, day in and day out, can easily shape a Scroogey persona. That’s part of it, anyway. Money does change people, but why it changes people, it turns out, is quite difficult to explain.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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